It seems like there is ever-increasing importance placed on body size in the United States. It comes from all directions and we receive these messages almost everywhere—in the media, in schools, in our retail stores, in our homes, at work. When we place so much importance on the size of our bodies, what happens if the size we have doesn’t fit the size we are “supposed” to have? (I use the word “have” rather than “be” intentionally here to emphasize that so many things about our bodies are incredibly difficult to change.)
So what happens if the size we have doesn’t fit the size we are “supposed” to have? Shame. Deep, enduring shame, that’s what happens. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines shame as “a feeling of guilt, regret, or sadness that you have because you know you have done something wrong; the ability to feel guilt, regret, or embarrassment; dishonor or disgrace.” The word conjures up images of a disgraced person hanging her head down because she committed a wrongful act. How is having the body you have a shameful act? But shame goes much deeper than just a wrongful act; it becomes who we are as a person. It’s not just that we’ve done something wrong, it’s that we are wrong.
When I was seven years old I was brought to the doctor for a check-up. I remember the doctor pulling out a Body Mass Index (BMI) chart. It compared the ratio of my height with my weight and assigned a number to me. I remember that the chart had different shades of colors as the BMI numbers went up. My doctor told my parents that I was in the pink region which meant I was overweight for my age. I did not know what “overweight” meant at the time, but I did know that it was bad and that I had done something wrong.
A preferred and narrow range of body size, weight, and even height has been established by the media, the medical community, and the general public. It is reinforced by everyday encounters with people, media, the food and diet industry, and our own internalization of that “ideal” and related self-talk. Being outside of the range means we are abnormal. The tendency is to blame the individual who does not fit into that ideal and let them know (either overtly or covertly) that they did something wrong. But what if the narrow ideal is what is wrong?
Shame about our bodies, or having a higher level of body dissatisfaction, is related to an increased risk for depression and poor self-esteem over time.¹ People with higher levels of body dissatisfaction are more likely to report unhealthy weight control behaviors and binge eating.¹ Shame is a major contributor to low moods and unhealthy coping strategies.
So what can be done to reduce shame and expand the range of acceptable body size, weight, and height to encompass everyone? Acceptance. Acceptance of others and, even more important and perhaps more difficult, self-acceptance. What we look like is only one small part of who we are.
We have the ability to dismiss weight bias—that doesn’t mean it’s easy given all the messages we get, but we don’t have to believe all those messages. Let’s embrace the differences in bodies and decrease the importance of size. We can start by looking at our children, friends, family members, and peers and let them know they are accepted and loved just the way they are.
¹Paxton SJ, Neumark-Sztainer D, Hannan PJ, Eisenberg ME. Body dissatisfaction prospectively predicts depressive mood and low self-esteem in adolescent girls and boys. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology. 2006;35(4):539-49.